The Start of Women's Voting in Tennessee
The first woman to vote in Tennessee was from West Tennessee and she prized her right to vote.
Extensive organizing and hard work preceded her vote. The strategy to achieve woman suffrage was two-fold: work for partial suffrage in the states and press for a federal amendment. Once a state granted the franchise to women, which was usually limited, it made it more likely that the federal legislators would support the 19th Amendment which would grant all women the right to vote.
Legislators who resisted supporting the federal suffrage amendment could more easily accept partial suffrage which is what happened in Tennessee. On April 14, 1919, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a limited suffrage act, which permitted women to vote in presidential and municipal elections only. Rep. Joseph Hanover of Memphis argued eloquently and voted for limited suffrage in 1919. He also led the House’s pro-suffrage efforts in 1920. Governor Albert H. Roberts signed the limited suffrage bill into law on April 17, 1919.
The following is from the Tennessee State Library & Archives online article, “Remember the Ladies! Women Struggle for an Equal Voice”:
The first woman to legally vote in any political election in Tennessee was Mary Cordelia Beasley Hudson (1851-1920) . A few days following the limited suffrage bill’s approval, a municipal election was held in Camden on Tuesday, April 22. Mrs. Hudson, who had joined the suffrage movement in 1918, cast her vote and was quick to point out that she voted for the winner of the election, A. V. Bowls. A 1919 Nashville Banner article had this to say about Mayor Bowls:
”His Honor, the mayor of Camden, is proud almost to boasting of having had his cause championed by the women of his town. And he is proud to the point of being “puffed up” in having been the first man in Tennessee to have been elected when women participated in the election.”
In 1920, Tennessee was the deciding state in ratifying the 19th Amendment, ensuring women nationwide the right to vote. Unfortunately, Mrs. Hudson died on October 1, 1920, and was unable to vote in the Presidential election. She is buried by her husband in the Camden City Cemetery.
While many people do not know about Mrs. Hudson and her contribution to the suffrage movement in Tennessee, the General Assembly has taken steps to ensure that she is not forgotten. In 2008, a House Joint Resolution 886 honoring Mrs. Hudson for being the first woman to vote in Tennessee was passed.
From the book, Tennessee County History Series, Benton County, by Jonathan K. T. Smith, is this data about Mrs. Hudson:
"The first woman to ever cast her vote in any political election in Tennessee was Mary Cordelia Hudson, nee Beasley (1851-1920). She voted in the Camden municipal election on Tuesday, April 22, 1919, and reported that she had voted for the winner in the race for mayor, Allie V. Bowles, and for the slate of aldermen that ran with him. Cordelia Hudson was a strong-willed Camden matron, wife, and mother, who firmly espoused the cause for women's rights. She pressed her interest by making sure that she was the first woman in line on that spring day to vote in Camden."
HOUSE JOINT RESOLUTION 886
A RESOLUTION to recognize and honor Mary Cordelia Beasley Hudson posthumously on being the first woman to vote in Tennessee.
WHEREAS, it is fitting that the members of this General Assembly should pause to specially remember those past pioneers of our state who, through relentless courage, faith, and devotion, helped to improve the quality of life for their fellow citizens and for the future
generations of our country; and
WHEREAS, Mary Cordelia Beasley-Hudson of Benton County was one such estimable pioneer who held the distinct honor of being the first woman to vote in Tennessee; and
WHEREAS, on April 22, 1919, a mayoral election was held in Camden during which Mrs. Hudson, a renowned advocate of women’s rights, made sure to be the first woman in line, and consequently, the first woman to vote in the State of Tennessee; and
WHEREAS, the Federal Amendment to the Constitution, which allowed women to vote, did not occur until the following year; and
WHEREAS, Benton County native Thomas C. Rye had been the previous Governor of Tennessee during which term he had made an impassioned plea to the 34th General Assembly to pass an amendment to the State Constitution to allow women’s suffrage; since the Constitution of Tennessee prohibited women from voting, it was determined that the General Assembly could pass a limited act without violating the State Constitution; and
WHEREAS, on April 15, 1919, the General Assembly passed a limited suffrage act and newly elected Governor Albert H. Roberts signed the bill two days later; and
WHEREAS, on April 22, 1919, Mrs. Hudson was finally able to realize the success of her many years of hard-fought advocacy for women’s rights by voting in the local election for Mayor of Camden; it was reported that she voted for the winner of that election; and
WHEREAS, a public-spirited citizen of the highest order, Mary Hudson was wholly committed to the noble cause of women’s suffrage, and she should be specially recognized;
BE IT RESOLVED BY THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES OF THE ONE HUNDRED FIFTH GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF TENNESSEE, THE SENATE CONCURRING, that we hereby honor Mary Cordelia Beasley-Hudson posthumously for being the first woman to vote in Tennessee and for her many contributions to Benton County and this State, as we reflect fondly upon her impeccable character and her stalwart commitment to living the examined life with courage and conviction. (signed by Governor on March 5, 2008.)
Written by Paula F. Casey. There will be a celebration of “Aunt Cord’s” first vote at the Camden County Courthouse on Monday, April 22, featuring Paula F. Casey and Jacque Hillman, who co-founded the TN Woman Suffrage Heritage Trail – www.tnwomansuffrageheritagetrail.com – as speakers. The festivities begin at 10 am.